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Immigration Review

Volume 462: debated on Monday 9 July 2007

2. What assessment she has made of progress on the implementation of her new Department’s immigration review; and if she will make a statement. (147902)

I have had several discussions with the chief executive of the Border and Immigration Agency since my appointment. Progress has already been made in meeting our key priorities, which are to strengthen our borders, to fast track asylum decisions, to encourage and enforce compliance with our immigration laws and to boost Britain’s economy through managed migration. Agency status for the BIA, including a new regional structure, is encouraging greater focus on delivery, flexibility and speed of decision making.

I welcome the Home Secretary to her new position and wish her good luck in it, and I thank her for her response. We have been impotent or unwilling to deport immigrants who are undesirable or who may pose a security threat to us. In light of the recent terrorist attacks and the increased threat level, will she adopt a tougher, more proactive policy on deporting “doctors of death”, or Muslim clerics who seek to radicalise young men in Britain?

Public protection and security has to be at the heart of our approach to immigration policy. The hon. Gentleman slightly underestimates the action that has already been taken. We have signed memorandums of understanding, which include assurances, with Jordan, Libya and Lebanon, and we have agreements with Algeria; they will enable us to deport suspects to those states. Nine people have been deported on national security grounds in the past two years, and 124 people from the UK have been excluded on national security grounds in the same period. We take the threat very seriously. We will do what is necessary and, by taking action and by making changes to the law when necessary, we will ensure that we can continue to do it.

My right hon. Friend will recall that the review identified what have become known as legacy cases—the 400,000 to 500,000 cases that were supposed to be cleared within up to five years. However, will she look at how the issue is being handled, because people applying for extensions of leave and humanitarian protection, rather than making fresh claims, are simply getting a standard letter saying, “It will be decided within five years, ” which is very unhelpful both to the constituent and to those of us who deal with their cases.

My hon. Friend is right. We have made a commitment to deal with all those cases—roughly 450,000—in the next five years. My predecessor set out the priority order on which that would be done, starting with harm first. Obviously, I will want to look carefully at the progress that is being made on that programme and I will take into consideration points made by my hon. Friend. We expect to be able to report on progress on that work later this year.

Given that the Health Department claims that we have a uniquely ethical policy of not recruiting doctors and nurses from Africa, will the Home Secretary, in her review, examine why the Home Office has issued more than 60,000 work permits to nurses and doctors from Africa since 2000, quite apart from the many issued to doctors and nurses from Asia? Although the issue was recently highlighted by the appalling fact that a handful of these people were apparently involved in terrorism, is it not also appalling that we are asset-stripping Africa of the resources that it so desperately needs to cure its own people?

Thanks to the considerable investment that the Government have put into training medical staff and ensuring recruitment into our NHS, it is no longer necessary—certainly with respect to consultants—to recruit from abroad. However, where people would like to come and contribute to the NHS—and, incidentally, in many cases, to take back skills that they have learned here to their own countries—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want us to prevent that from happening. The related issue of the concern about security checks on those who come to work in the NHS is, of course, the subject of the review that the Prime Minister has asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Admiral Sir Alan West, to undertake, and we will look carefully at whether there is more we need to do to tighten the security arrangements in those very specific circumstances.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as part of the immigration review, she could reflect on the impact that migrant workers are having on indigenous workers in all our communities? There is clear evidence that unscrupulous employers are bringing these vulnerable workers into this country and exploiting the current employment laws. Will my right hon. Friend speak to her colleagues in the relevant Department to close those loopholes?

It is in order to make sure that the economy and the British people benefit from migration, but also to manage the risks and allow people to come to this country on the basis of their skills and the contributions that they can make, that we have set up the migration advisory committee, which will meet for the first time in October to look precisely at those issues. It is also—this relates particularly to some of the areas that my hon. Friend was concerned about—why we are increasing our enforcement capacity to tackle illegal working where it is happening and, more broadly across Government, looking at how we can ensure that the minimum employment standards that we expect in this country are taken into consideration and enforced, regardless of where workers come from.

The Home Secretary will be aware of previous announcements of the shortage occupation lists by the migration advisory committee and of ongoing consultation on the prevention of illegal working. There is, of course, also the immigration review that she is discussing in this question. Is she confident, given that a plethora of different bodies are doing similar and related work, that the output from each will be consistent and avoid any conflict between the necessary job of preventing illegal working and the equally necessary job of ensuring that labour shortages in certain sectors continue to be dealt with?

I am confident that we are putting in place the necessary bodies in working order to ensure that. That is why the migration advisory committee, which I mentioned in my previous answer, has a clear remit to assess the economic benefits of migration and the way in which we should manage that for the benefit of the British economy. The migration impact forum, which met just this month, has a clear responsibility to examine the impact of immigration across, for example, public services and other aspects of our communities. Taken with the wide range of other activities that I outlined in my first answer, those give us a clear view of our priority objectives, and we are increasingly putting in place the machinery to make sure that they are delivered.

I am glad to welcome the Home Secretary to her new role. I am sure she will fulfil it with the calm good sense that she has already displayed. On the migration review, people like me who were elected on a platform of a firmer, faster and fairer immigration process have been concerned that we deliver on the speed of the process. One of the welcome aspects of the migration review was accelerating the pace of change, speeding up decision making and making decisions more effective. One of the difficulties that I have had in looking at the speed of decision making is the fact that the asylum statistics do not report on the end-to-end model—

Order. Please have a seat while I am standing. The hon. Lady should ask a precise question and not give us a preamble.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My question was whether my right hon. Friend would look at the figures that are published in the asylum statistics, so that the whole length of time that an asylum decision takes—

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), is right. It has been a clear focus of the work of the Border and Immigration Agency to reach those decisions more quickly and to get them right. That is why the decision for the majority of asylum seekers will be made within one month. Before the end of the year we will achieve the milestone that we set ourselves, for 40 per cent. of asylum cases to be completed in six months from the decision through to the disposal of that decision. My hon. Friend raises an important point about how we report the asylum statistics. That will be the subject of a review of asylum statistics being led by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) over the summer. I hope to be able to report back to her when we have carried out that review.

I welcome the Home Secretary to her first Home Affairs questions. The Government have made much of the role that identity cards will play in the management of our immigration system. Her Minister for Immigration and Asylum said to me on the Floor of the House in February that up to 70 per cent. of the cost of ID cards would be absorbed by the introduction of biometric passports. Given that in the High Court the Government are blocking a request from the Information Commissioner demanding publication of the Government’s own early cost estimates for the project, will she agree today to allay growing public concerns about the ballooning costs of that vast project? Will she agree to place before the House as soon as possible a full, detailed analysis of the costs of the project from beginning to end?

The hon. Gentleman and his party, as well as the official Opposition, have taken a consistently oppositional approach to the use of identity cards to support our objectives in relation to immigration, how we counter terror, and how we make sure that people in this country get the things to which they are entitled—[Interruption.] Sometimes that opposition is hidden behind concerns about costs, and sometimes it is hidden behind more supposedly principled arguments. Nevertheless, it is opposition, and Opposition Members have to face up to the consequences when difficult decisions are being made. On the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, it is about the release of information being prepared for and provided to Ministers to allow the most rigorous analysis to be made of the ongoing costs of delivering a very important policy—ID cards. I am, of course, completely in favour of freedom of information, but it is also my view that there will be—[Interruption.] There will be important areas such as advice to Ministers and ongoing analysis of policies that the original legislation never proposed should be subject to freedom of information. If we are to ensure that those reviews are as rigorous as the hon. Gentleman and I both hope they are, that is an entirely reasonable position to take.

Only a few days ago, I signed off a letter to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) describing a set of circumstances that I am sure is common in the constituencies of most hon. Members, which is that a good number of people who are working in local residential care homes as carers are foreign nationals who have been here for several years. When will the Border and Immigration Agency’s new system for processing work permit applications be up and running? In the interim, an awful lot of applications are being rejected, with all that that entails for the stability and fair treatment of the foreign nationals who are here, and indeed for the quality of care that will be available in residential care homes without the services of those people.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the potential contribution that migration can make to our economy. Improvements have already been made to the work permit process, but of course one of the challenges is how we can, as we go forward, bring some consistency and coherence to what has developed over the years into 80 different routes for immigration into this country. In order to do that, the very good progress that has been made so far on the points-based system of dealing with immigration is absolutely crucial. That is why I have been encouraged by that progress.

The Home Secretary says that progress has been made, yet the head of Interpol stated that the Government are failing to check visitors against its database of stolen documents and suspected terrorists. The Government’s own counter-terrorism adviser, Lord Stevens, has criticised our porous borders. Only this weekend, we discovered that a convicted French terrorist has been allowed into Britain. Just hours ago, Muktar Said Ibrahim was found guilty of conspiracy to murder for his role in the 21/7 attacks—a man who, despite the fact that he was facing criminal charges for extremism at the time, was allowed to leave the country, go to Pakistan to train, and come back and plan the attempted murders of 21/7. The Government’s own e-borders policy will not be in place for seven years. What immediate action is the Home Secretary planning to protect the public?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point in respect of Interpol, I hope that I can provide reassurance to the House that it is already the case that all known and suspected terrorists declared by Interpol are placed on the warnings index by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. That warnings index has 17 million entries and is routinely used for the scanning of passports of all those who enter this country. However, work is also under way with SOCA to provide access and searching functions against the Interpol stolen travel document database at the border. We have already carried out a study, and I am expecting a report on that next week.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s general points about the security of our borders, I have to say that he fails to recognise the considerable progress that has been made. That progress already enables us to check and verify the fingerprints of those applying for visas on entry to this country. Through measures that we are taking in the UK Borders Bill, foreign nationals in this country will be subject to biometric ID cards. In the past two years, airline liaison officers have already turned back more than 150,000 people—the equivalent of two jumbo jets a week—because of a failure to have the correct papers or because of concerns about them. The first stage of the e-borders scheme has already enabled us to track 22 million passenger movements, has issued over 12,000 alerts to border agencies, and has—

The Home Secretary says that action is being taken. However, the weaknesses in our control and security do not just apply to doctors: bogus student applications are an even bigger loophole. Her predecessors—all of them—have made tough promises. Let me quote just one—the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said, three or four years ago:

“We are going to tighten up dramatically on students coming in, the colleges which take those students…Secondly, making sure that those students who do come actually turn up on their courses, and don’t disappear”.

Since that promise, one university alone—Portsmouth—has notified the Home Office of 2,500 students who were given places, and presumably got visas on the back of that, but did not turn up. What did the Home Office do about it?

Well, I had only just got started.

Let us get on to the subject of foreign students. They bring considerable economic benefits to the UK, contributing more than £5 billion a year to our economy. We are determined to ensure that the student route is not abused, which is why it is already the case that students found ineligible for a visa are refused entry to the UK. Visa applicants, including students, are checked on application against the warnings index of 17 million entries. From April 2007, a package of rules changes have taken effect, which tackle the abuse of the student route.

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question, there is already mandatory reporting of enrolment and attendance of students, when requested by the Border and Immigration Agency. Failure to do so would result in a college being removed from the current Department for Education and Skills register. The introduction of the points-based system with a much stronger focus on sponsorship will mean that all sponsors will have to be accredited, and any college or university that does not do so will run the risk of being taken off the list, and will thus be unable to sponsor students and get the benefits that come from that process. We have taken strong action to tackle the abuse already, and further is planned.